Finally. The poster presentation day has come and gone and with that, it officially marks the conclusion of CM4199A: Honours Project in Chemistry. After 2 semesters of lab work, I find myself liberated, yet lost, as I patiently wait for the next adventure to swing by.
Instead of delving into the details of my experience doing a final year project, I decided to take on a slightly different approach and in here, I will try to provide some advice to juniors who might feel somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect of doing research work. I think I might be in a position to provide some advice as I somehow managed to score an A+ for my final year project with many strokes of luck and good fortune. I am not sure when exactly did my aim change from getting a good grade to getting published but I am happy that it did because it means that my research work is good, novel and publishable. I may not be in the position to judge the honours project but I think I have the right to share my thoughts on it. I think a final year project is a great hands-on experience, it distinguishes learning in the university from junior colleges/ polytechnics/ secondary schools because you really get to plan, innovate and contribute to the scientific community. It’s definitely not as scary as some people make it sound to be.
There are four main parts to the final year project with the Department of Chemistry, NUS and they are 1) research, 2) oral presentation (~January), 3) thesis (~early April) and 4) poster presentation (~mid April). You will get two examiners, likely from the same domain of work but not necessary. Together with your supervisor, they will be the one who will grade you. Honestly, I still don’t quite know how the grade percentage works out because it’s rather confusing. Rumour has it that poster presentation accounts for most of the grades given by the 2 examiners. It is certain that these 3 people will grade you relative to other students that they are examining. A word of caution here: instead of trying all means to outperform your compatriots, it is better to try to get obsessed over your own work and try to sound passionate and confident when you sell your ideas.
1. Choosing a supervisor and project work: go with your interests and don’t choose because it’s rumoured to be easy. Nothing is easy. Should try to read some review articles regarding that research area to see whether it still appeals to you in spite of all the scientific jargons. You’ll definitely have to read a lot, a lot of scientific journals.
2. Working in the lab: working in the lab is similar to working in an office (except with flexible hours) so importantly, get a sense of the lab politics and try not to get too involved. Similar to working in an office, it is important to get a good rapport with your colleagues, the PhD students. They can help you in many, many ways. As mentioned earlier, lab hours are flexible and what this means is that you have to plan an appropriate rhythm to do your lab work. Some people are more nocturnal and prefer to work in the later hours of the day while others, like myself, prefer to come to work early. Try to plan such that you don’t lose too much time, e.g. do some other experiments/ prepare for the next experiments while waiting for your 8 h reaction to happen. Personally, I plan what I am going to do in the week down to every hour on Sunday evenings. Importantly, get into a suitable rhythm. Do not overwork yourself and try your best not to come back on the precious weekends. There will be group meetings in which you have to update your supervisor about your research progress. Report failures and suggest possible solutions to maximise these sessions.
3. Dealing with failures: That is probably the hardest part in the final year project journey. You’ll fail many times. The feeling is terrible and frustrating when you spend your entire day doing an experiment and the experiment just fails for unknown reasons. What is worse is failing the experiment when you’re repeating it (to obtain the error bar). Why on earth did it work the first time round and fail now? What did I do differently/ wrongly? It is tough to deal with failures, I’m still learning, but a way to do so is to not get emotionally attached to your own work. Understand that research is part of your life but not everything. Drink a beer, watch a movie and try again tomorrow.
2. Oral Presentation
1. Preparing for it: the Oral Presentation will be the first occasion (out of two) where you’ll come face-to-face with your 2 examiners. It’s a 20 minutes long presentation followed by a 10 minutes Q & A session. It is important to prepare early and keep rehearsing. As undergraduates, we don’t usually present on our own for 20 minutes so it might be a first for most people (including myself). Try to keep it simple and refrain from the technical jargons. You’ll have to give a quick literature review (the motivation for doing this piece of work), your overall plan and what you have done so far. Personally, I feel it is quite important to give a good literature review to introduce your area of work to people who might not know too much about it. The details can be more brief.
2. Presenting: it will be in a small tutorial room and your examiners will sit on the chairs and face the projector screen and you’ll talk for most of the time. Don’t get too intimidated (I know it is hard). Presenting is easy once you get rid of the initial nerves. The tougher part is the Q & A. This is where you’ve to sound enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your work.They will ask difficult questions until the point that you can’t answer. Try to be polite and acknowledge their well-intended suggestions and do not even attempt to smoke them.
3. Getting over it: some people have tough examiners who may say mean things about their work. You may feel indignant, after all, you spent hours and hours in the lab and yet the examiners may not acknowledge your efforts. Try to get over it and get obsessed with your work again and try to impress them on the second attempt (poster presentation). After all, your work is, at best, only half-done by January.
1. Writing it: the people at Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences always moan and complain about how difficult it is to write theses. For science students, however, a thesis is half-written and half-illustrated. It is very important to have visually stunning graphics and diagrams that make your work look rather professional. Refer to relevant scientific journals related to your work for examples. As for the writing, the focus really should be in the abstract, introduction and conclusion. Make a good case why your work is important and novel. There are two possible formats: thesis or scientific paper. Your mentor/ supervisor will advise your accordingly. If you happen to choose scientific paper like I did, you’ll have to pick a journal format to follow (likely the journal that the lab wants to publish in). Start writing the thesis early even though your results might not be complete yet.
2. Proof-reading it: I have a habit of proof-reading my writing roughly a week after I’m done with my 1st draft. Usually, I tend to think that my writing is fantastic for the first few days after I’m done with the 1st draft. Roughly a week after, I will be more critical of my writing and find faults with it. Get someone from the lab to read it as well. He/ she will spot mistakes, sometimes rather glaring, in your prized work.
4. Poster Presentation
1. Preparing: For Chemistry students, poster presentation comes after thesis submission so it means that you’ll have obtained all your results and consolidated them before making the poster. Similar to the thesis, the poster has to be visually stunning. There are plenty of websites advising people on how to make posters so it will be good to refer to them. Generally, keep the diagrams and words big, use bold appropriately and don’t write too much on your poster. Prepare a 10 minute presentation but be prepared that your examiners might interrupt you and ask more or they might just jump the gun and pose questions to you directly. Keep rehearsing. It is best to get someone from the lab to look through for gross mistakes too.
2. Printing: Poster needs to be printed! Some places, e.g. the YIH printing place, take more than a day so be mindful. I printed mine at West Coast Plaza which was almost instantaneous. I heard that the NUH Medical Center 4th level also prints quickly too.
3. Presenting: The atmosphere on the poster presentation day is odd, something many of us are not accustomed with. You will see friends whom you have not seen in a long time and amidst the catching up, you have to be constantly mindful when your examiner appears by your poster. I actually forgot how one of my examiners looks like but I knew it was her when she stared at my poster longer than what a passer-by would. Quickly, you have to convert from your colloquial talk to serious presentation. Sometimes, it gets quite noisy when someone beside you is also presenting to his/ her examiner at the same time. As always, try to sound passionate and confident about your work. This is supposed to be a mini academic conference so your examiners will ask you intellectual questions to know more about your work. They will interrupt you and ask you for more information about your work. You need know what is unique about your work, the design of your methodology, how every method in your project works (and the alternatives available) etc. The examiners will come any time they want so it is a rather painful experience of waiting when people around you are done with their presentations. Most importantly, relax, stay calm and be proud of what you have achieved in 2 semesters.